Every once in a while I post something just to have it handy as a reference for the next time I have to deal with a galloping case of some particular kind of sloppy thinking. That way I don’t have to generate an individual explanation, but can simply point at my general standards of evidence.
This one is about accusations of sexism, racism, and other kinds of prejudice in the open-source culture.
First, a statement of principle: in the hacker culture, you should be judged by your work and your work alone. It is wrong for anyone to be attacked, belittled, or excluded because of the color of their skin, the shape of their genitals, what they like to do with their genitals, their politics, their religion, or any other irrelevancy. We are, and should remain, a place where those marginalized because of some aspect of their meatspace identities can find community and a place to do fulfilling work.
I have always stood up for this norm, and will till I die. If I am presented with evidence that anyone in the community has violated it, I will exert whatever authority I have as a tribal elder to condemn that violation and point the community in an ethically correct direction.
That said, in practice I believe such violations are very rare. So rare, in fact, that I cannot now say I know with certainty of even one. On the other hand, I do know of a lot of accusations having been flung by three categories of people: the mentally disturbed, drama queens, and political carpetbaggers. Of these, I consider the last – people seeking social and political power that they have not earned through the merit of their work – to be the most dangerous, enough so that they cannot merely be ignored but must be actively countered and ejected from our community.
In the remainder of this post I will explain what you need to do to present me with a prejudice-related grievance in order to get my full attention. I cannot enforce these standards on other elders or anyone else, but I recommend them to all.
First: Be humble. Don’t walk in assuming your outrage over whatever injustice is bothering you entitles you to dictate to us. It doesn’t – and, anyway, hackers are often prickly, countersuggestible people who don’t take well to what they perceive as attempts to jerk them around, so you’ll self-sabotage if you come on too strong. We have lots of work to do and limited patience for distractions; your cause may be important, but you are not, so start humble and reasonable and stay that way.
Second: show me your code. I want to see URLs to public repositories with your commits in them. (OpenHub statistics will do for a first cut.) Your credibility goes up with commit volume and number of different projects. and especially with the number of other people you have collaborated with.
In theory, I might be open to other metrics than commit volume for people who aren’t primarily software engineers. But that’s an edge case; the point is, whether it’s lines of code or Thingiverse objects or PCB layouts, I want to see evidence of contributed work.
There are three reasons I filter on this. One is that if you don’t contribute to the open-source work, I don’t consider that you have earned the right to lecture me or the open-source community on how we should behave or think.
Another is that if you haven’t put in time playing well with others, any claim you make to know how the community operates and whether it in fact suffers from ingrained prejudices is ungrounded. You need to know our problems, our adaptive strategies, and the reasons we organize and communicate the way we do before your opinion will be worth anything. Make your bones, get that experience, then maybe we can talk.
A third reason is that this is an extremely difficult filter for the people who generate false positives – the mentally disturbed, the drama queens, and the political carpetbaggers – to actually pass. Usually they suffer from a combination of stupidity, laziness, and antisociality that prevents them from contributing effectively. By stopping them here at an objective criterion we can avoid more difficult arguments about later filters.
Third: show me your evidence. I want to see evidence of specific harm, attack, or attempts to exclude, on identifiable victims, by identifiable perpetrators. It isn’t sufficient to say, for example, “Women (or black people, or gays) can’t get their patches accepted, or are sexually/racially taunted on forums.” and then wave your hands as though the accusation itself is to be treated as evidence and anyone demanding specifics is part of the problem.
I want to see concrete evidence of specific incidents – mailing-list traffic, IRC captures, pointers to web pages. If you can’t produce that evidence, you aren’t having a problem with the public behavior of hackers (or anyone else) and I can’t address it.
Fourth: Do not ever try to kafkatrap me. You do that, your credibility goes to negative infinity and stays there. You not only discredit yourself, you damage your allies and your cause.
Fifth: Convince me that you’re actually talking about anyone who actually regards me as a tribal elder. This means that you can’t go on about gamers, or 4chan, or neoreactionaries, or “brogrammers”, or any one of three dozen other on-line cultures or population categories in which a reasonable person might (rightly or wrongly) read evidence of bigotry, and expect me to care more than in a general, abstract way. They aren’t my people or my problem; you need to go find their tribal elders and complain to them.
If, on the other hand, you had a bad experience somewhere else and insist on sweeping open-source hackers into the same bucket because we look something like those people, or smell like them, or whatever…then you are the problem.
Sixth: If you have evidence of a specific instance, and want to persuade me that it is an index for a general pattern of prejudiced or hostile or belittling behavior, then come equipped with a generative theory of why your experience far from me differs from the almost ideally unprejudiced behavior I have observed near me over nearly forty years.
That is, you need to explain why I should consider that your claim of systemic prejudice flatly contradicts my everyday experience of hackers not caring about anything but quality of work. As a feminist would say, you need to not deny my lived experience.
Note: theories of the form “You’re blinded by your own prejudices/privilege” are kafkatrapping; see above, these will just set your credibility to negative infinity. Bring a theory which can be tested by falsifiable consequences, or don’t bother.
Generally, remember that neither I nor my community have a lot of patience for sloppy thinking, special pleading, or lazy guilt-tripping. If your reaction to this advice is to dismiss these as defensive rationalizations for not giving a shit, then we don’t give a shit about you.
If you pass all these filters, maybe you have something to teach me, and maybe you’ll get to see what I’m like when I am righteously pissed off because hacker norms have been violated in a serious way. It is part of my job to come down like the wrath of God when that happens – it’s what my community trusts and expects me to do.
That is all.